Friday, October 24, 2014

Velai Illa Pattadhaari: V.I.P.

Won't you look up at the skyline

At the mortar, block, and glass

And check out the reflections in my eyes

See they always used to be there

Even when this was all was grass

And I sang and danced about a high-rise

And you were laughing at my helmet hat

Laughing at my torch

Go ahead you can laugh all you want

But I got my philosophy.

--Ben Folds Five, “Philosophy”

To put it mildly, Vela Yilla Pattahari (aka VIP) was not the film I was expecting. Judging from the trailer and snippets of reviews I’d seen floating around touting what a box office hit it had been, I assumed VIP was a straightforward masala film. Actually, it’s not. ACTUALLY, it’s the angriest angry young man film I’ve seen in a long, long time. And the angry young man has some seriously legitimate grievances with society. VIP isn’t just a commercial entertainer--though it is entertaining--it’s an uppercut delivered squarely to the jaw of the pampered Wake Up Sids, a flying kick to the chest of the incompetent star son. And who better to deliver the killing blow than Dhanush.


The message in VIP may have sailed over the heads of some critics but you need look no further than the fact that one of Dhanush’s dialogues in which he confronts a slick, company owner’s son, calls him “Amul Baby” and then says, “You’ve jumped right into the boss’s chair because your dad was rich” has gone viral to know that the film hit big with its target audience. Scores of videos of the dialogue have been posted to youtube, including a fan remake and one ofAmitash, who played the villain, delivering Dhanush’s lines.

To paraphrase Samuel L. Jackson, people have had it with these motherfucking rich boys on this motherfucking plane.

Dhanush’s frustrated young man is named Raghuvaran. He’s not introduced in a triumphant slow-motion entrance in a shower of confetti but by his father yelling at him to wake his useless butt up and drive his brother to work. Raghuvaran, as we find out, is one of the thousands of university graduates sitting around underemployed because he can’t get work in his field. So he spends his days helping his mom (the divine Saranya Ponvannan) around the house and mooning over the new neighbor girl Shalini (Amala Paul). Not very heroic. And Raghuvaran isn’t a very heroic hero, at least in the first half of the film.

But even he’s not a heroic man, Raghuvaran is a good man. He tries to get job after job but can’t quite bring himself to compromise on his morals and resort to bribery. So when the second half comes and he finally gets an honest chance to use his civil engineering degree, we, the audience, want him to succeed. Especially when it turns out that the person trying to sabotage his work is the lazy second generation son (Amitash Pradhan) in over his head attempting to run his daddy’s construction business. That’s right, the “Amul Baby,” himself.

VIP comes down to a clash between not the haves and the have-nots, but between what our American politician Paul Ryan called the “takers and makers.” Except not in the way he meant. The takers are the rich businessmen, the real welfare queens, living large at our expense while the makers, the people who actually want to do things, to build buildings, to help society, they have been shut out. Mostly shut out. Raghuvaran gets one chance. What will he make of it?

Raghuvaran--Dhanush as Raghuvaran--is such a fascinating character. And the first half of the film, which sets up the tangled threads of his family and home life, doesn’t feel slow, despite the fact that nothing much happens. Dhanush has a magnetism that holds the camera, even when he’s only reading a book or sitting and thinking. We can read exactly what he’s thinking in the way he bobbles his head, in the tone of his voice.

And Raghuvaran may be having a crisis of autonomy but, importantly, he never takes it out on the women in his life. He watches television serials with his mother, washes dishes with Shalini’s mother, and hangs out with Dr. Shalini herself--who earns more than even her own father--while feeling secure in his own manliness. Not just secure, Dhanush makes all these things seem cool. It’s cool to hang out with your mom.

Raghuvaran’s discontent comes not from a crisis of manliness but from citizenship. He wants to contribute something to society but keeps getting turned down. And it was really satisfying to see the call center job portrayed as the boring, soul-crushing work it almost certainly is. Raghuvaran wants to do something. He could be earning a wage but at what cost to himself? Usually when it’s depicted in film, this type of crisis is reserved for the wannabe artists and actors, navel-gazing, author-stand-in-special-snowflake Udaan type films where the hero puts his (always his) crappy poetry (or whatever) on a higher plane than everything else. When it feels like both Hollywood and Bollywood are only producing films-about-films or films about artistic crises or rich people wondering “what is love, really” to see practical work being celebrated as a worthwhile craft--and the work of a humble civil engineer at that--was just really, really satisfying.

I don’t know much about Velraj, the director, except that he is a cinematographer and this was his directorial debut. Needless to say, the cinematography was fantastic. There were a lot of really interesting visual ticks here and there, especially dealing with character perspective. And the colors were really nice. The bright yellow of the hardhats against the sandy backdrop of the construction site was a beautiful visual.

The one thing I didn’t like in VIP was the decision to forgo any fantasy song picturizations in favor of montages. While this is more “realistic,” I feel like montages make the romance feel less believable. There just isn’t the same emotional connection to seeing the hero and heroine in a montage as there would be seeing them singing to each other in an appropriate location. There may have been a cost saving measure here but fantasy picturizations don’t have to be a mountaintop in Switzerland or the bamboo forests of Japan, a normal flower garden or beach works just fine. The purpose is to show that the couple are off in their own world, to make us feel the romance. A montage just doesn’t cut it.

That said, the music of VIP was fantastic and the choreography of the two dance numbers was great. I really enjoyed it all. Another winner from young Anirudh Ravichander. “What a Karvaad” is a banger, one of the angriest, most punk rock songs I’ve heard in a long time. And I really enjoy the way the tracks are subtitled on the soundtrack “The love of Raghuvaran,” “The loss of Raghuvaran,” etc. It shows a care with the soundtrack as a whole that one doesn’t see very much nowadays except perhaps with somebody like A.R. Rahman. If that’s who young Anirudh is modeling himself after, I fully approve.

Taken as a whole, VIP is a truly wonderful work of commercial cinema. Films like this, artists like Dhanush, Velraj, and young Anirudh Ravichander are why I’ve found myself gravitating more and more towards Tamil films the last couple years. These men care. This isn’t just brainless cinema and the audience knows it, even if the critics don’t, Amul Baby.

4 comments:

Moimeme said...

Congratulations for getting a reply from Dhanush!

I just wanted to mention, in case you were not aware of it, that "Amul Baby" in current day India is an epithet that is used freely and almost exclusively for Rahul Gandhi -- who, whatever else he may be, is certainly the poster child of entitlement through genealogy. That might explain why the line went viral. :)

Moimeme said...

Sorry, just a couple of other thoughts. This theme of the common man who wants to contribute to building the country but being thwarted by corrupt interests was a staple of almost all Indian films (I mean all languages) back in the 1950's and 1960's, the heydays of socialism. So it's interesting it's made a come back now, though, to be fair, I think Telugu and Tamil films never really went away from this connection to reality, no matter how tenuous. Certainly I can't remember too many navel gazing films/heroes of the Wake Up Sid type in South Indian films, no matter how fantastically the theme might be treated. So it seems like VIP's significance lies more in its treatment of the theme rather than the theme itself. (I mean even Sivaji and Enthiran are about heroes who are working to better society, even if the films are treated more fantastically than realistically; similarly with many of Chiranjeevi's crusader hero type of films, or even the recent Kick -- as I said, the connection may be tenuous, but it is there.)

Divya said...

@moimeme you are right, this theme never really went away. A Wake up Sid would not work as far as I can tell with the SI audience. The incessant whining while everything in his life practically falls in his lap is not something the audience will take to, however with more multiplexes coming up thing may change.
@Filmigirl I did not watch VIP. I heard the story and the mid film twist annoyed me so I skipped it. However as an upper middle class urban South Indian myself and an IT professional to boot who apparently undeservedly makes a lot of money, I am tired of being the punching bag in these kind of movies. Are there entitled assholes amoungst us, absolutely. Are there first generation graduates, recent immigrants from the villages, girls from the hinterlands making more than their fathers with their parents being proud of them, yes them too. So the blanket us vs them mentality that some of these movies advocate in the name of standing up to the man rubs me the wrong way. I am not accusing VIP of doing this, I did not see the movie. I was just offering another perspective to your thoughts about the movies socialism. Yes, Call center work is soul crushing, I have even seen marriages destroyed by it. But the people who do it are people too. No need to portray them as stupid, greedy or sell outs.

Apex said...

Haven't seen this and am not into south Indian films
But this is real fun
"The one thing I didn’t like in VIP was the decision to forgo any fantasy song picturizations in favor of montages. While this is more “realistic,” I feel like montages make the romance feel less believable. There just isn’t the same emotional connection to seeing the hero and heroine in a montage as there would be seeing them singing to each other in an appropriate location"

@ divya--some interesting thoughts again esp
"However as an upper middle class urban South Indian myself and an IT professional to boot who apparently undeservedly makes a lot of money, I am tired of being the punching bag in these kind of movies. Are there entitled assholes amoungst us, absolutely."-- don't be so severe on yourselves --nobody earns a penny more than they deserve -In this world aka 'marketplace' ...

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